When Jesska Hughes decided to step back from alcohol about four years ago, she missed the casual comfort of hanging out in a bar more than drinking itself. Hughes, 38, has lived in Oakland for 15 years and plays in a band. The bar scene had been a large part of her social life for years, but without alcohol in the picture, she wished there was an alternative, and not a kava or kombucha bar, but a place open at night that feels like a traditional watering hole — just without the pressure to imbibe. Not finding a place like that in Oakland inspired a Field of Dreams-like moment; Hughes realized she had to build it herself.
“I’m not a businesswoman at heart,” she said. “I just wanted it to exist in Oakland so I could go there. It just kind of snowballed into this thing that if you want it to exist you have to do it yourself.”
Hughes has previous experience in the service industry, but she’s been working as an administrator at an environmental nonprofit for the past 10 years, so she approached several friends with her idea. One of them, Michelle Hill, was completely on board to join her in opening Oakland’s first alcohol-free bar. Together, the two friends dreamt up Bizzy’s Dry Bar.
Though they had the idea for the bar, they still needed a space, which is where Ryan Stark, owner of Black Spring Coffee comes in. Stark offered to share the space at 2930 Telegraph Ave. with the new business. The plan: from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Black Spring serves coffee, tea and vegan pastries; by evening, Bizzy’s Dry Bar takes over.
And Hughes and Hill tapped yet another friend, Lourdes Benavente, to help them create their drinks menu, which offers mocktails, shots, beer and wine — all completely free of alcohol. The cocktails and shots use fresh ingredients, like lemon, ginger, turmeric and carrots, and housemade syrups, like orgeat, a cocktail sweetener made from almonds that give drinks body. But unlike many bars that just serve virgin drinks made with juices and sodas as substitutes for booze, Bizzy’s cocktails will also feature non-alcoholic gin, whiskey and other botanical spirits from makers like Seedlip Spirits and Ritual. The bar will also offer o% ABV beer from Lagunitas, Heinekin and Clausthaler and dealcoholized wine from Ariel Vineyards.
“Dealcoholized wine tastes a lot like wine. It’s not like grape juice, but regular wine that they removed the alcohol from,” Hughes said. As for the spirits, the products mimic some of the flavor profiles and even warming qualities of gin and whiskey. Bizzy’s offers renditions of classic cocktails, like an Old Fashioned, whiskey and Coke and Kalimotxo (red wine and Coke), but Hughes said her two favorite drinks on its current menu are the Daily Cloud, made with orgeat muddled with fruit (currently, raspberry) and the Spicy Mojito, with Anaheim pepper, mint and lime. She said the offerings will likely expand and develop over time, and that customers can request off-menu drinks.
Non-alcoholic drinks that taste like alcoholic drinks could be a great option for some, but Hughes said she understands how it could be unappealing to others.
“We’re trying to figure out where the line is. It’s like having an Impossible Burger, where if you’re vegan, do you really want to eat something that tastes like a real burger? It’s kind of a weird line,” Hughes said.
Another consideration is customers who may still be overcoming struggles with alcohol.
A growing community of non-drinkers have opened booze-free nighttime hangouts where adults can unwind without judgment or temptation.
“It can be triggering if you’ve been sober, but [the mocktail] reminds you of a whiskey drink that you used to have,” Hughes said, adding that she and Hill will be open to feedback from customers and that Bizzy’s will also have options that don’t resemble alcohol at all.
At the time Hughes and Hill first started planning Bizzy’s, they didn’t realize that alcohol-free bars already existed and that, especially in the last year, they’ve been gaining traction worldwide. A growing community of non-drinkers has opened booze-free nighttime hangouts — like the Getaway in Brooklyn, Sans Bar in Austin and Redemption Bar in London — where adults can unwind over mocktails and other virgin beverages without judgment or temptation. Although they’re often called “sober bars,” these establishments are growing in popularity with all types of people, including those who never have had a taste for alcohol and those just taking a temporary break from drinking.
Hughes doesn’t describe herself as sober. She isn’t a complete teetotaler; she’ll have a drink every once in a while, but alcohol is no longer a part of her everyday life.
“We don’t want [Bizzy’s] to be alienating to people to have to feel like you need to be sober in that space. Or that you have to be a totally sober person, everyone is welcome.”
Bizzy’s Dry Bar opens on Jan. 18. Hours are 6 p.m. to midnight, Thursday through Monday; closed Tuesday and Wednesday.